It was a scene worthy of Mr. Bean. Classical music was permeating the fancy ballroom, everyone was classically (i.e. pompously) dressed, and the atmosphere bespoke opulence and sophistication. That was not the “fun” party my friend promised when she invited me. I was trying my best not to bump into someone with a drink on their hand so they won’t spill it all over their expensive designer suit or dress. As a natural “wallflower”, I was way out of my comfort zone in that extravagant gala. I scanned the guests looking for a familiar face, and there she was, our generous hostess chatting away a Henrick Larsson-lookalike (Remember Henrick Larsson, Sweden’s most popular football player in the pre-Zlatan era?) I approached her, and she introduced me to the Swedish gentleman she was talking to. The guy extended his right hand for a handshake, only to be surprised that my hand was not where he expected it to be. Yet again, I forgot that I was not in Sudan, and –with all the friendliness I could muster – touched his upper left shoulder with my right hand, the traditional Sudanese handshake. The guy was befuddled, with his hand still extended, and my hand on his shoulder, outrageously invading his personal space.
That was not my first encounter with mortifying handshake-related gaffes. A few years back, I spent several months in the beautiful (and sunny, oh god how I miss the sun!) Arabian Peninsula. People were generous, friendly and affable. One time, one of my newly-made friends introduced me to an elderly gentleman from his family. Being in Arabia for a while, I knew that the traditional greetings there include touching noses. Yes, you read it right! The tradition is for the younger person to approach the older one and to rapidly “lock” noses, once, twice or sometimes even three times. You can imagine how worried I was that my de Gaulle like nose will totally obliterate this old man’s face! Nothing happened to him, thank god, and he left with his nose intact, but a cloud of awkwardness hovered over me for the rest of the day!
I believe cultural exchange is one of the most fascinating aspects of living outside as an international student. Living in a cosmopolitan city like Stockholm means that not a day goes by that I don’t learn something new about a different culture. And I’ll let you in on a little secret: I rejoice every time I pick on one of those “cultural differences” situations, because I get to tell my friends and colleagues about how we do things back in the beautiful land I come from, which always leads to interesting and stimulating conversations.
A couple of weeks ago, on a gray, dreary Stockholm morning, I was about to enter the classroom with a frown on my face (it was an 8 am lecture, so…). From a far I could see one of my master’s colleagues hurtling towards me, with a mischievous smile on his face. When he reached me, and instead of his usual “yo, whassup” accompanied by a fist-bump, he greeted me the Sudanese way: hand-on-shoulder, followed by a firm handshake. I was astonished. It didn’t take much persuasion to get him to “spill the beans”: apparently he became acquainted with another Sudanese student who taught him about our traditional handshake, and he’s been practicing with my compatriot so he can come and surprise me. Needless to say, my frown turned upside down.
Photo: My friend Hassan and I, engaging in a Sudanese handshake